Ira Glass, This American Life host and comforting radio voice to many, set off an internet kerfuffle last week after watching King Lear in Central Park by echoing the sentiment of thousand petulant middle schoolers: “Shakespeare Sucks.” On Twitter, the glass house from which we all now cast our stones, Glass praised the actors but slammed the material. “Shakespeare: not good,” Glass tweeted. “No stakes, not relatable.”
Predictably, Glass’ comments provoked a flood of defenders willing to assert the merits of Billy Shakes and his work. (Not that Glass’ diss would have exactly ripped all the copies of Romeo and Juliet out of the hands of high school teachers, but you know.) New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead wrote a piece on the incident questioning Glass’ choice of words titled “The Scourge of Relatability.” In it, she focuses on the insidious spread of the word “relatable” as a marker of value in artifacts of culture.
But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.
Things that we consume shouldn’t just pander to our sense of self, it’s true. Some of the most worthwhile works of literature, film, and art are the ones that challenge our assumptions rather than simply fulfill them. This isn’t a new argument, just another facet of an old one: Entertainment vs. Art.
“Relatable” and “likable” are basically meaningless distinctions: What you and I like or relate to are necessarily different. Requiring any art to reflect a universal experience, to be warmly received by everyone, is almost certainly going to ruin the art. All the edges have been filed down to have a palatable object, unobjectionable and unremarkable. It reflects the inherent tension in creating anything: You want people to like the thing you made, but you don’t want to make it only so that other people can like it. There has to be an impulse behind it other than an approving emoji.
Bemoaning the use of “relatable” is not a new phenomenon, either. The New York Times published an article about the rise of the word in 2010, and Slate ran another about the word’s “awful emptiness” in April this year. What’s little addressed is the equally popular and equally terrible flip side to “relatable”: Difficulty for difficulty’s sake.
The backlash to “relatable” artworks are ones that are intentionally complicated, alienating, and problematic for the sake of being complicated, alienating, and problematic. They are ones that require you to work for that kernel of meaning only to realize that there is none. It is the scourge of complicated academic language used to mask a very plain point, one that would have been better if put forth directly. If at one end of the spectrum there are works intended to give you the warm and fuzzy mirror image of yourself, at the other there are those that smash the mirror and cuts you with it because art, man. Both are cynical and dishonest. There is nothing wrong with something being “likable” or “relatable” as a by-product of their being, nor is their any fault is a great work being complicated by nature of its endeavor. But we should be wary of things that only operate to manipulate their audience rather than add anything new to the conversation.
Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby.